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Daily News - Monday, 10 September 2007

IMF commends economic performance
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) says it has completed the seventh review of the performance of the DR under its economic program supported by a Stand-By Arrangement (dating back to 31 January 2005) and has approved the disbursement of US$118.3 million, bringing total disbursements under the arrangement to US$553.9 million. The agreement expires on 31 January 2008.
In a press release, the IMF commends the macroeconomic performance under the program.
Says the IMF:
"Macroeconomic performance under the Dominican Republic's economic program has continued to be commendable. Prudent policies in a generally favorable external environment have restored confidence and resulted in high growth, single-digit inflation, declining public debt ratios, and a robust external position. Continued progress in program implementation should further reduce vulnerabilities and bolster medium-term growth prospects.
"Fiscal policy has helped contain the public-debt-to-GDP ratio, improving the outlook for public-debt sustainability. Since early 2007, revenue growth has been robust, in large part reflecting revenue administration improvements and gains from record-high nickel prices. Higher revenue has, in turn, allowed for a more ambitious fiscal target for 2007. The challenge ahead is to persevere with fiscal consolidation during the upcoming electoral period, which will require firm control of public spending.
"Progress is being made in reducing the electricity sector's need for budgetary support. The criminalization of electricity theft and fraud and the recently-completed renegotiation of some long-term contracts are important in this regard. The new legal framework should be firmly enforced, and electricity prices should be allowed to adjust with cost conditions to keep the sector operating on a sound commercial basis.
"Monetary policy has successfully contained inflation within single digits, despite significant oil price increases. The central bank will need to remain vigilant and tighten monetary policy if signs of overheating appear. The recapitalization of the central bank will strengthen its financial independence, accountability, and credibility.
"The legal framework is now in place for the reorganization of fiscal institutions and management. Strong coordination among the leaders of the new institutions will ensure the successful implementation of this restructuring. Making the single treasury account operational will enhance the institutional framework for public financial management by centralizing budgetary control under a single ministry.
"Financial sector risks have substantially decreased, and the banking system has been significantly strengthened. Prudential regulation has broadened to cover financial groups, and financial supervision is appropriately emphasizing risk management. Plans for an international financial center should be consistent with international standards on both consolidated banking supervision and anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing."

Toll plaza to prevent accidents
The toll plaza located near the Moca crossroads at La Penda, on the Duarte Highway in La Vega, has been paved, and the southbound lanes opened to traffic. No tolls are currently being taken. According to Diario Libre, the Ministry of Public Works said that the idea is to prevent accidents in the area that have taken seven lives over the last two years. Most of these accidents have resulted from a lack of proper markings, inadequate lighting and the New Jersey Barriers that mark the detour that was put into place as construction started. There were few warning signs of the approaching detour. Now, the detour is clearly marked, but only after seven people were killed in accidents. At the site, a military officer who refused to be identified told Diario Libre reporter Cornelio Batista that some of the accidents occurred due to serious violations of the traffic laws. Now drivers can cross the toll plaza in either direction by going through the booths, without paying, somewhat similar to the toll plaza near Santo Domingo. The toll plaza was built at a cost of RD$200 million but has never been put to use. According to sources at the Public Works Ministry, the government will begin charging tolls when the economy picks up. However, transport unions in Santiago, Moca and La Vega have rejected the idea.

Max Puig resigns cabinet post
Presidential environmental advisor Max Puig has resigned his post. He sent a letter to the President announcing his decision. As reported in Saturday's Diario Libre, Puig said that his decision was based on the corruption he had to confront during his three years as minister of environment. President Fernandez removed him from the post in August and appointed him as his environmental advisor. "You, better than anyone, knows what we had to do to confront the corrupt elements from different political inclinations that tried, and are still trying, unfortunately, to reduce the protected areas of the country," stated Puig. Puig resigned on 28 August, eight days after the President removed him from his post as minister of environment and only seven days after being appointed advisor and minister without portfolio. Puig states that he did not feel he could best serve the country from that post. Shortly before his removal, Puig banned construction aggregate companies from extracting building materials from riverbeds. Environmentalists have commented that the new minister of environment, Omar Ramirez, is ambivalent in enforcing the new measure, changing the wording to a decision that gives the companies time to announce how they will discontinue their operations, as reported in Diario Libre. The press has reported on permits issued after Puig's departure from the Ministry, such as a permit for the construction of an aqueduct in Loma de Quita Espuela by INAPA on 22 August and a permit for the construction within the 60 meters for Tourism Minsiter Felix Jimenez's Vistamare tourism project in Samana on 28 August. During his term, Puig opposed the construction of hotels in the Jaragua National Park's Bahia de las Aguilas and in the National Park of the East (Bayahibe area) that were endorsed by the Ministry of Tourism.
In his letter of resignation, Puig says that his party, the Alianza por la Democracia, would continue to support President Leonel Fernandez's re-election campaign.

Sand and gravel worries
Environmentalists are worried about the language being used by the new Minister of the Environment, Omar Ramirez on the issue of the ban on extracting sand and gravel from the country's river beds. According to Luis Carvajal, a member of the UASD University Environmental Team, the being language used by the minister is "not entirely clear" when referring to the mining operations. Carvajal said that, "the minister doesn't have to study anything. All he has to do is to guarantee the fulfillment of the decree in the strictest manner possible." He was referring to Ministry of the Environment resolution 16-2007 that calls for an end to all mineral extractions from riverbeds within 90 days, a period that ends in October. According to Carvajal there are more than 63 sites for sand and gravel extraction that are not located in rivers. These sites have been identified by the UASD and the Dominican Academy of Science Environmental Team. These organizations have challenged the extractor's claim that there would be any increase in the price of sand and gravel as a result of the ban.

Save Quita Espuela
Directors of the Fundacion Loma Quita Espuela in San Francisco de Macoris are warning that the National Drinking Water Institute (INAPA) is committing an ecological crime with the construction of an aqueduct that cuts through the scientific reserve. Juan Gelabert, the foundation's press officer, said that engineers have cut a 2.5-kilometer highway inside the reserve, which enables any illegal logger to enter and cut down trees in that area in the space of an hour. They said that in order to open the road they have cut down dozens of thousand-year old mahogany, cabirma, cola and other trees, in violation of Environment Laws 64-00 and 202-04. They complained that since the start of the work, INAPA has operated without the legal permits from the Ministry of Environment. Gelabert said they are exploiting a limestone mine in addition to building work and housing without a thought for the mountain's natural resources, a source of main rivers. They also claimed that the building company is washing its vehicles in the Los Morones River. Gelabert said that Elizabeth Zabala, the INAPA engineer in charge of the work has refused to comment and said that she has authorization from the previous director (Richard Martinez, today drinking water advisor to President Fernandez) to carry out the work. New INAPA director Frank Rodriguez said that the construction had received a permit from the Ministry of Environment dated 22 August 2007, after Max Puig was removed from his ministerial post. The work has been in process for a year.
In an editorial on Sunday, Listin Diario warned of the serious dilemma between the aqueduct's construction, and the need to preserve more rivers and forests from accelerated destruction, as has occurred in other parts of the country, saying that it is a national duty to preserve this forestry reserve intact without any more negative human intervention.

Long lines at airports
With the approaching anniversary of 9-11, security at the country's airports has been stepped up, leading to long lines of impatient passengers wanting to board flights to New York. The tightened security comes in response to a warning by United States intelligence agencies that say that Al Qaeda is preparing "large-scale terrorist attacks" against the United States. After the latest videotape from Osama Ben Laden, security throughout US ports of entry has been tightened and airport security in neighboring countries has been stiffened. Security officers are taking more time to check each passenger's luggage and more officers have been stationed at control points. As usual, the Dominican authorities tend to go a bit overboard regarding what is allowed in hand bags and carry on baggage, so passengers flying during these days are advised to put anything questionable in their checked-in bags.

Cargo increase onerous
Cargo company spokesman Edgar Fernandez says that the announced doubling of the cost per transportation pound of cargo will put exporters out of business. As reported in Listin Diario, he said that Dominican airports are already "too costly" compared to others in the Caribbean. He said that the new cargo charge comes at a time when agricultural production is at a new high. He said that an increase in the charge would have to be absorbed by Dominican exporters because it couldn't be passed on to consumers abroad as Dominican producers compete with suppliers from other parts of the world. Aerodom recently informed them that as of 1 November, the cost per pound for airfreight would increase from two to four US cents. Dominican exports using airports from January to June of 2006 was 155,860,441.31 kilograms or US$43,761.441.31. Exports for Jan-June 2007 were 129,320,574.40, or US$53.951,900.29.

Call for electricity cost cuts
Aquiles Bermudez, president of the Santiago Free Zones Association, has denied reports that the free zones have asked the government to devalue the peso. He said that what the free zones are requesting are measures to reduce their production costs. They are focusing on the cost of electricity and fuel, for starters. Monsignor Agripino Nunez is heading a new government appointed commission to discuss ways to improve the free zone industries competitiveness. Free zones have been affected by Chinese competition and rising costs. "As a Dominican and a thinking person I believe that devaluation would be dangerous for the country and so we do not want that, because it would break the macro-economic order, cause inflation and increase costs for our companies," said Bermudez.

Homs fast-tracked for electricity
Today's Diario Libre reports that the Superintendence of Electricity has fast-tracked the Santiago Metropolitan Hospital, authorizing it to receive its electricity supply directly from the generators, bypassing the much more expensive power from EdeNorte distribution company. The newspaper points out that hundreds of other private hospitals and industries have long been on a waiting list for approval for authorization to receive less expensive power, but that this process has been on hold despite the Electricity Law's authorization.
This year the government upped the power demand level necessary to source directly, but nevertheless, the authorizations were on hold. Not so for HOMS. The government recently authorized a US$25 million subsidy to the private group for the hospital's completion. HOMS is scheduled to become the main health center in the Cibao region, with the latest in medical technology. There has also been speculation that it could become the first Dominican hospital to accept Medicare.

Bishops slam high salaries
Three Catholic bishops have voiced their agreement with the statement issued by Cardinal Lopez Rodriguez concerning the high salaries of some government officials. The bishops said that they were insulted by the announcement that certain government officials were being paid salaries of a million pesos per month or more when most of the country is living in poverty. The Bishop of San Francisco de Macoris, Jesus Maria De Jesus Moya, was joined by the Bishops of San Pedro de Macoris and Bani, Francisco Ozoria and Freddy Breton in his statements. Breton called the situation an "indignant inequality" and an insult to all the people who are scratching out a living.

RD$152 million for the Church
The Fernandez government called a meeting with the Church to make RD$152 million available for improvements requested by the Catholic Church in the DR. The works will be carried out by the Presidency's Public Works Supervisors Office, headed by Felix Bautista and will be ready by February 2008, according to a report in Listin Diario. Work is being carried out at the cathedrals in Santo Domingo and churches in 10 archbishoprics nationwide. The works include the RD$43.9-million Cathedral Museum, and the repair and remodeling of the library at the Archbishop's headquarters at a cost of RD$12 million. The government is also making RD$22 million available for the celebration of Santo Domingo Cathedral's 500th anniversary. Superintendent of Electricity Francisco Mendez also agreed to allow Santo Domingo Cathedral to operate as a non-regulated user and purchase power directly from the generation company, considerably reducing the cost of power. This will enable the cathedral to operate its new air conditioning system that has not be used up till now due to prohibitive electricity costs.

Nobody agrees on JCE regs
The secretary general of the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), Orlando Jorge Mera, said yesterday that the new regulations from the Central Electoral Board (JCE) would only affect the opposition parties and not the candidate for re-election. Jorge Mera said that he was concerned that the rules and regulations did not guarantee a level playing field when one of the candidates is the current President. He condemned the use of public funds by the President seeking re-election. Appearing on the Institutionalism and Justice Foundation (FINJUS) television program on Channel 37, Jorge Mera said that his party was not in agreement with allowing members of the army to vote because Dominican society is not yet ready to introduce politics into the armed forces.
Meanwhile, the spokesperson for the ruling PLD party said that the Campaign Regulations proposed by the JCE could not in any way prevent a presidential candidate from doing what the law does not prohibit. This was the answer that Reinaldo Pared Perez gave in response to JCE chief magistrate Julio Cesar Castanos Guzman's call for an end to the purple flag waving rallies that the PLD is currently holding throughout the country. Pared Perez said that the prohibition had to include all parties, not just the PLD. Pared Perez said that the PRD candidate has long held meetings, political rallies and radio and television exposure without any reprimand from the JCE.

Women's health is state issue
Physician Lilliam Fondeur has called on Congress to disregard strong demands from the Roman Catholic Church, which seeks to maintain the total ban on abortion in the DR. Dr. Fondeur says that physicians should exercise the previous flexibility to allow abortion in the case of rape, incest or fetal abnormalities. She says that removing the penalization of abortion that is contained in the Penal Code currently under revision cannot be a matter of religious debate. She says it is a matter of state as the health and welfare of mothers and newborns are at play. She says that a ban on abortion primarily affects the poor who according to statistics are more likely to be victims of rape and death from backstreet abortions than middle and upper class women who can go abroad.
"No woman wants to have an abortion, because an abortion is a failure however you look at it. This is about the state taking on the defense of health and life, but life with dignity," she explained, referring to the case of a teenager who could have been raped by her father, her uncle or her guardian. She estimated that more than 100,000 illegal abortions are carried out in the DR, which represents a failure on the part of the health and education systems and of society as a whole. She said that the figures show that the absolute penalization of abortion has not lead to a decline in the number of abortions. She says it does contribute to an increase in maternal mortality and the risk of health problems in teenagers. She said that the DR has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality and abortion in unsafe conditions is the third main cause of death.
"Definitely, health matters cannot be handled by religious beliefs, no matter what religious belief we are talking about," she explained.

Careful about plastic clones
The Dominican government is issuing a warning to credit card users who make on-line purchases to be on the lookout for fraud committed with cloned cards. According to Listin Diario, some companies are offering equipment that will clone credit cards with web pages on the Internet. The Ministry of Industry and Commerce warned about the reality of cloned credit cards and the ministry said that it had found many businesses selling over the Internet that do not offer sufficient protection to customers who supply personal information during the purchasing process. The Internet offers include card readers, magnetic strip burners, die stamps, printers for the plastic, software for designing the cards, and all the accessories needed to complete the clone. With this equipment it is possible to read the magnetic strip without the customer knowing what has taken place, according to the reporter. The ministry warning even names some sites as very dangerous for users. Most are Mexican: Art-danza, TV Ofertas, Nacional de Farmacos, Ann Miller, CV Directo, and Grupo Famsa. Most card cloning is traced to ATMs, malls and tourist centers.

Police change tactics
The Dominican police have begun to apply a new tactic, one of mapping out the areas where most crimes occur, as a way of stepping up the fight against crime. At the same time there will be more frequent motorized patrols in the 20 barrios that make up the northern sector of Santo Domingo. New Police chief General Rafael Guzman Fermin told reporters from El Caribe that these efforts will be coordinated by the police station on Albert Thomas Street, and all the logistical support the police has at its disposal will be available. The police will use computerized maps with information about the incidence of robberies and attacks, and focus on these areas.

DR wins in children's baseball
Dominican 9-10 year olds have won the XI Pan American Infantil A (9-10 years old) youth baseball competition. The event was held in Santo Domingo on 1-12 September, and is part of the youth tournament organized by the Pan American Baseball Confederation (COPABE), under the International Baseball Federation (IBAF). The Dominican children came from behind to defeat Venezuela in the deciding game. In the previous match against Venezuela, the Dominican team lost 14-3.
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